Facebook @Jessica Zelinka
July 28, 2023
Dinos coaches advocate for gender equity in sports
In a world where women have historically faced limited opportunities and glass ceilings in competitive sports, two Dinos coaches, Jessica Zelinka and Carol Huynh, are speaking out about the challenges they faced in their athletic careers and how they hope to create a more equitable future in coaching.
As head coach of track and field and cross-country, Zelinka, BA’07, shares her experience balancing motherhood during her Olympic career, while Huynh, assistant coach for wrestling and also a former Olympian, advocates for greater female representation in a male-dominated sport.
Their stories highlight the hurdles faced by female coaches while showcasing the value of advocacy and allyship. The University of Calgary’s commitment to inclusivity and entrepreneurial spirit goes hand-in-hand with Zelinka and Huynh’s messages.
Overcoming obstacles and advocating for change
Zelinka’s journey in track and field began in elementary school in her hometown of London, Ont., where she broke city records and eventually competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, placing fourth in the heptathlon, breaking a Canadian record.
Zelinka graduated from UCalgary in 2007, after competing on the Dinos track and field team for four seasons. She was a four-time Canada West Athlete of the Year, based on her outstanding performances at conference championships. At U SPORTS championships, she won medals from 17 podium finishes in her collegiate career, was named Female Track Athlete of the Year in 2004 and top female field athlete in 2007. Zelinka and the Dinos women's track and field team won the national championship in 2007 and she later earned the BLG Award as the top female athlete in U SPORTS.
Zelinka recalls the difficulties she encountered after her first Olympics in maintaining her sponsorships after getting pregnant. Despite finishing fourth in China and remaining determined to compete at the next Olympics, she says it was a challenge to convince the sporting world that women could have a baby and still come back to compete, especially during a time when many female athletes weren't doing that yet.
"Sporting organizations weren't ready for women to take these steps and decide to have families during their careers," she says, adding she advocated for her sponsorships and had tough negotiations, challenging outdated perceptions of women who choose to balance their careers with their family life.
Zelinka says there shouldn’t be any barriers for female athletes who choose to have children during their careers. “I did research to try to find out who else was facing these same obstacles, and I found there weren't many women in the same situation at that time, so I had to pave the path for myself,” she says.
Zelinka ultimately returned to compete postpartum in 2009, rebreaking the Canadian record in the heptathlon and winning the 100-metre hurdles at the 2012 Canadian Trials to qualify for the London 2012 Olympics, where she placed fifth overall in the heptathlon and sixth in the 100-metre hurdles. Zelinka is one of the most decorated student-athletes in Dinos history and was inducted into the Canada West Hall of Fame in 2020.
Her advocacy has helped shift the narrative, highlighting that women can excel in athletics while embracing motherhood.
Advocates and allies
THE CANADIAN PRESS/COC - Mike Ridewood
Inspired by her sister, one of the first female wrestlers at her high school, Huynh joined wrestling despite doubts about her abilities due to its male-dominated nature. Huynh, who is from Hazelton, B.C., says her female teammates and their support played a crucial role in her success, leading her to become Canada's first-ever gold medallist in Olympic women's wrestling, winning in Beijing and later taking bronze in London. Huynh was also inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 2009 and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2017.
“Wrestling has always been a male-dominated sport, so people questioned my abilities, telling me that I wasn’t big enough to be a wrestler,” says Huynh. “But that was one of the things that got me into the sport. I was a small little girl and wrestling made me feel powerful in my own skin.”
When she came on as a Dinos assistant coach, Huynh says the support she received from wrestling head coach Mitch Ostberg was instrumental in her success. “He wanted to make sure that I came on as the program coach and not just the women's coach. I coach men, and I coach women,” she says.
While coaching a generation where the presence of female athletes is now more normalized, obstacles from individuals with antiquated ideas about women in wrestling are still present. She recalls her former teammate Tonya Verbeek and Verbeek’s role as the first female head coach of the Canadian women’s national team, a significant milestone for women in wrestling. However, the position has since been terminated.
“In an ideal world, people would see female coaches as equal to male coaches in wrestling, but we're not there yet,” says Huynh.
Huynh believes that female coaches can empower and support all athletes, challenging societal norms and paving the way for future generations. “I want other female athletes to understand that this is something they can pursue. We can coach wrestling and we’re very good at it!” she says.
UCalgary's commitment to an equitable future
Despite facing obstacles in the sports world, Zelinka says she is grateful to be a Dinos coach at UCalgary, where recognizing these challenges and advocating for change is valued.
"I'm fortunate to be part of this shift and serve as a role model in a time where more women are joining the system," she says.
For Huynh, having a female coach on the Dinos wrestling team is a huge step. “I think, in a broader sense, having more female presence in the sporting world at every single level is very important for providing a different perspective, that representation matters,” she says.
UCalgary is committed to championing gender equality and diversity in sports, providing a supportive and inclusive platform for coaches like Zelinka and Huynh to thrive. By openly discussing the challenges they've faced as women in sports, they are paving the way for future generations of female coaches and athletes.
Dinos Athletics and the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (OEDI) at the University of Calgary are committed to fostering a diverse, inclusive, equitable, safe and affirming environment for all members of the campus and wider community. With a focus on promoting gender equity and diversity across all sports programs, Dinos Athletics seeks to not only excel in competitive achievements, but to also create opportunities for personal growth, flourishing and development.
OEDI strives to address and remove barriers that have been and continue to be encountered by Indigenous Peoples and equity-deserving groups, including women, visible/racialized minorities, persons with disabilities and LGBTQ2S+. The OEDI serves as a centralized resource for equity, diversity, and inclusion through resources, literacy and education at the University of Calgary.